China foolishly threatens rare earth elements ban

Chinese threats to ban exports of "rare earth elements" critical to high-tech American products will foolishly boomerang by forcing the U.S. to ramp up mining and processing.

Bloomberg reported that China's President Xi Jinping visited the JL MAG Rare-Earth Company mine to fuel "speculation that the strategic materials could be weaponized in China's tit-for-tat with the U.S. on trade."

Rare earth elements are crucial to high-tech devices because of their unique magnetic and lighting properties, such as neodymium, used in the commercial-scale wind farm magnets to maximize the efficiency of electric generators to produce current.  Newer applications include hybrid electric cars, iPhones, and military hardware such as night-vision goggles and guided weapons. 

From the 1950s through the mid-1990s, the Mountain Pass Mine in California's high desert supplied most of the world's demand for rare earth elements, including europium for color TVs.  But China began targeting supplying rare earth elements beginning in the 1990s as a clear pathway to enter the Western world's high-tech supply chain.

Although China had only about one third of the world's proven reserves of rare earth elements, state-owned mines were able to garner a near supply-chain monopoly by making huge capital investments to maximize efficiencies in refining ore impurities and then subsidizing rare earth element selling prices.  Mountain Pass owner Chevron began shutting down the mine in 1998 and closed refining operations in 2002.

With U.S. high-tech corporate and military demand booming, Chevron sold the mine in 2008 to Molycorp Minerals LLC, which planned to invest $500 million to reopen and expand Mountain Pass.  Molycorp raised $400 million in a 2010 mid-July IPO.

But China retaliated by "test-driving" a sharp curtailing of customer rare earth element shipments.  The move sent shockwaves through tech industries supply-chains.  After a short interruption, China was able to leverage rare earth customers into concentrating virtually all their purchases with Chinese suppliers. 

After Molycorp filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January 2016, the Mountain Pass assets were bought in July 2017 by consortium of two U.S. private equity funds, and Chinese minority shareholder Leshan Shenghe Rare Earth Co. Mining and refining operations were relaunched as American Elements Corp. in January 2018, but the mine continues to operate at just a fraction of its potential capacity.

American Elements already began discussions with the Trump administration in 2017 aimed at the U.S. government nationalizing the America's only rare earth minerals mine.  CEO Michael Silver told Daily Manufacturing News at the time, "The [White House] staff understood the urgency of the matter." 

Chriss Street is an economist and a co-founder of the New California movement.